- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 3, 2006

The Department of Homeland Security has expanded eligibility for $756 million in anti-terrorism grant money to include preparation and response to natural disasters.

“Capabilities to evacuate people would obviously have relevance in a terrorism case with a certain kind of attack, but would also have relevance in a natural disaster of a certain kind,” said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Mr. Chertoff said the focus will be “upon geographic regions, as opposed to political jurisdictions,” and that the change was made as a direct response to shortcomings surrounding last year’s hurricanes and a review of the terror attack on London’s underground rail system.

“To pick the obvious example, when you have a geographical area that’s below sea level, which has a certain consequence and a certain risk that emerges through a natural disaster, that may also apply to a terrorism-driven disaster, and so that would be part of the plan,” Mr. Chertoff said.

The urban grant is separate from a first-responder program that guarantees funding to every state and U.S. territory, including the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Critics of that congressionally mandated program have questioned smaller cities’ need for such money and say the program is abused.

The 35 metropolitan areas eligible for this year’s urban grant encompass 95 cities with populations of more than 100,000 people and include the Washington area and a 10-mile boundary, as well as Baltimore; Philadelphia; Chicago; Phoenix; Denver; Miami; Atlanta; Memphis, Tenn.; Indianapolis; Baton Rouge, La.; New Orleans; Boston; Detroit; Las Vegas; and Dallas.

To be eligible for the grants, regions must show they are at risk and how they will spend the money, Mr. Chertoff said.

Key Capitol Hill lawmakers yesterday signaled support for changing the grant qualifications. Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, said the risk-based threats should include border protection.

“I believe that all funds should be distributed on a threat basis, and that the department should reorient its resources, not only in the funds they distribute, but also in setting priorities for department initiatives based on threat,” said Mr. Gregg, who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security.

The more than $3 billion first-responder program has swelled from four to 11 categories of grants. Allocations now include $400 million for law enforcement, $175 million for port security and $655 million for firefighter assistance.

Mr. Chertoff said firefighting grant funds have been used for questionable projects, such as $63,000 for a decontamination hazardous materials unit still in its crate stored in a warehouse and more than $100,000 each for custom-built mobile command centers hundreds of miles from major cities.

“If an area is not capable of coming up with an investment justification that makes sense, they’re not going to get money,” Mr. Chertoff said. “That’s going to eliminate the proverbial leather jackets or other kinds of apocryphal stories or non-apocryphal stories you read about in years past.”

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